Greek cuisine is justifiably famous for its emphasis on the freshness of the ingredients, and the simplicity of their presentation. Eating is a social occasion, and restaurants and cafes are often filled with the noise of families and friends catching up on events and ordering more and more food and wine. Sit-down meals are therefore convivial affairs that are fuelled by food that is often delivered to the group for sharing, rather than to the individual.
The idea of courses is alien to the Greek mind, and any food that is ordered will arrive as and when it is cooked, rather than being delivered in strict succession. Most meals normally begin with a series of orektika (appetizers) that are placed in the centre of the table and passed around within the group so that each person can fork or spoon off onto their own plates as much of the various dishes as they wish to eat.
These orektika are hot or cold, and often consist of dips such as tzatziki (a yoghurt and garlic dip), fava (pureed yellow peas) and melitzanosalata (a roasted aubergine/eggplant dip); salads made of a mixture of tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers or carrots; cheeses, both fresh and fried; courgette/zucchini or aubergine/eggplant fritters; little cheese or spinach pies; a plate of freshly fried whitebait and so on and so forth. The list is endless, and every restaurant, village and region of Greece has its own particular delicacies.
For those with some room left, these orektika are followed by larger plates of grilled or roasted meat or fish, or perhaps some mayirefta (dishes that have been cooked for several hours, e.g. casseroles) such as the famous moussakas. Desserts are usually simple affairs of fresh or baked fruits, or small portions of sweet confections such as halva (semolina) or baklavas.
These kinds of restaurant-based feasts are a weekly part of Greek family life, but Greek cuisine does not begin and end here. In fact, it is the street food or fast food that is in many ways emblematic of their culinary tradition: a slice of freshly-baked spinach or cheese pie from the local bakery; a toasted sandwich stuffed with sliced meats, slivers of vegetables, and cheese spreads; or a pitta bread folded around freshly-carved chunks of spit-roast meat and garnished with fresh salad and tzatziki sauce, all washed down with a locally-brewed beer or soft-drink.
Although not for the calorie conscious, this food, with its emphasis on freshness, conviviality and simplicity, is quintessentially Greek.
Locally produced wines and beers are readily available throughout Greece, and have much improved in quality over the last decade. Although retsina (a resinated wine) is regularly available, it is not often the locals’ drink of choice these days. Freshly made wines are available on tap in most restaurants and off-licences, and although they do vary widely in taste and quality, they are often a good bet to accompany meals. Bottled wines are more expensive, but less variable in quality, and some wineries (in particular the Achaia Clauss in the Peloponnese) are turning out consistently high quality vintages.
Although international staples such as Heineken and Amstel have dominated the Greek beer market for years, they are being increasingly challenged by local brands such as Alfa and Mythos, which are well worth trying on a hot summer’s day.
If possible, always order your beer in a bottle, rather than a can, as the bottles are recycled while the cans are often just thrown away, which causes terrible environmental problems, especially on the smaller islands. If you have bought them from an off-licence, take the bottles back yourself, and you will be given a small discount off your next purchase to reflect the value of the bottle!
The spirit of choice in Greece is undoubtedly whiskey, and in the absence of any local production, there are often a wide range of American or Scottish labels on offer. Ouzo, the traditional aniseed drink, can be very strong (as much as 45 percent!) and comes in many different brands, but is drunk as an aperitif with water and ice, or to accompany a meal (usually fish or seafood based), rather than as a stand-alone after-dinner drink.
Greece produces many different varieties of bottled mineral waters, which are packaged with varying degrees of sophistication, and are available as still, naturally sparkling or sparkling. Many restaurants will bring water to the table in a simple jug, and as Greek tap water is almost always chlorinated this presents no health problems, but they will also have a range of bottled waters available upon request.
Freshly-squeezed orange juice is available in all Greek bars and cafes, but very few other kinds of fruit juice are regularly available. There are a number of locally produced long-life fruit juice brands that are on offer in supermarkets, corner shops and bars, with the cherry varieties (vissino) being particularly palatable, but the remaining list of locally produced soft drinks is lamentably short.
Coca-cola and its associated brands are available everywhere, and the main local producer (Ivi) does produce a decent lemonade, but if you are lucky enough to find one of the few remaining local brands of home-made lemonade, try one: they are almost always sour and strong in flavour, but are immensely refreshing after a day under the unrelenting sun!
Most basic ingredients are available throughout Greece, but there are some (such as the tiny Symi prawns/shrimp) that are only available in a specific region, and these should be hunted down and devoured whenever possible. Most of the time it is the inventiveness of the local cooks that produces local specialities, and these will often be highlighted with justifiable pride by the waiters.
One important exception to this is Greek yoghurt, which is available in all the supermarkets in famous brand names such as Fage or Delta, or (and much more appetizingly) as a locally produced full-fat version made from sheep’s milk or cow’s milk, which are often sold in baked clay containers (which make for nice baking dishes if kept). When served with local honey, nuts or oats, it makes for a delicious breakfast, snack or dessert.